Tuesday, April 6, 2021

P&W CA town hall meeting: poetry in a time of crisis

I joined the most recent Poets & Writers California Town Hall Zoom meeting: Poetry in a Time of Crisis. Lucille Lang Day, Ruth Nolan, and Molly Fisk introduce themselves via the native names for the lands we inhabit. Ohlone, Shoshone, Nisean. 

They talked of their community work, and how their anthologies came into being—a reaction to what was happening to our state (of mind). Diversity. They read selected poems from their anthologies. Lucille talks about bio-regions and fire ecology, she reads a poem about about the evolution of redwood seed cones, and a ladybug poem from Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California.

I think: Ladybugs fly hundreds of miles to mate and congregate in my grandmother’s old bedroom, why that place, who knows? Every year they come, and cover the walls. A living mosaic flickering like fire. My childhood room. We haven’t the heart to fix the windows. Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home. Your house is on fire, and your children do roam. Oh, the pheromones of home.

Ruth Nolan talks about the drought and her experiences being a firefighter during the 1980s. She lives in a cabin in the Mojave desert. I keep thinking of fire, fire is always on my mind, but then I am born under a fire sign. Mend and weave. Fill the word basket with fire words. A song fragment is stuck in my head. Old Woman, Weave and Mend. In the darkness of the storm she is watching. Gathering the fragments. This becomes my backdrop. My ear worm.

Molly Fisk reads selections from California Fire & Water: A Climate Crisis Anthology. She talks about the program, and how CPITS poets taught residencies to kids about how to deal with climate crisis. She shares that she came to poetry via personal crisis. How, through that experience, teaching poetry became her life’s work. She asks us, how can poetry help people to heal? An old woman is weaving, her bones become the loom.

I think: The fire season came early this year, it’s a drought year, too soon. Too soon. Poetry is the language of emotion. It is the perfect vehicle to understanding the problem. It is the way to heal. She says, if you can’t understand something or you can’t put it into words, put it into the third person and then write about what didn’t happen. 

I think: Poems are like baskets holding the past. Poets see things differently, we have acutely honed observation skills, we are the watchers. This is why I like to watch murder mysteries. Honing my skills. Looking for clues, the divine mystery. We are gathering the fragments. The old woman, she is weaving the sacred circle, gathering in the colors, she is watching over you. Oh, sisters, weave and mend.

We are spreading the word, we are saving all we can save. It turns out everything burns—asphalt becomes a molten river. I remember how last year, during the wildfire, we were under evacuation alert mode, how the ghost leaves drifted across the valley, and fell, glowing like fireflies on the wind. Leaves drifting like snowflakes, like feather down. Such hot kisses. A torch song. On warm days, the attic still remembers the acrid odor of wildfire smoke. A constant reminder of the past, and what is to come. Oh women, weave and mend.

Can poetry change the world? Its narrative is where things begin. Jamie FitzGerald says, We need to change the narrative. How do we go about teaching in a time of crisis? Working with landpaths and creating eco-poetry. Call it passing the baton of social awareness to the next generation. Oh, Sisters, weave and mend.

Jamie said, During the Covid crisis, the penny dropped, the disparate pieces of climate change became a puzzle, the picture came into focus. How do we name it, this thing called climate change, without distancing from it? Oh, women weave and mend.

Molly says type up lines from poems and put them under windshield wipers at night when no one is looking. I like the idea of guerilla poetry for April Poetry Month. The tapestry we weave with our words. Grandmother Spider. The song, what does it want? So insistent.

We talk about Carolyn Forché’s latest book, Against Forgetting, the role of the poet. This is how we bring about change. Bearing witness. Never forget. 

And finally the song’s message is revealed. I look it up. The Elderwomen of Nanaimo, a place lately on my mind. Songs and poems work in funny ways, an undercurrent below the conscious level of the psyche. The elders are speaking to me through the song:

For years I’ve been watching, waiting for Old Woman, 
Feeling lost and so alone, I’ve been watching.
Now I find her, weaving, gathering the colors.
Now I find her in myself.

A call to action. Become the loom. Weave and mend.

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